Leonie Edna Brown’s studio is not far from the idyllic Durbanville Hills and the drive gives me a moment to ponder on something she wrote on her website. “Art creates a moment in time for silence and contemplation.
It stops me in my tracts (sic) and for that one little moment, nothing else matters but that small breath of peace”. The word ‘peace’, echoes in my thoughts as I traverse the road that dissects Cape Town’s Northern Suburbs. The gorgeous green wine farms that marry the natural contours of the landscape in splendour deserve artistic appreciation, and there is certainly a moment in time here, minutes away from my destination, that evokes a sort of inner peace.
There are more of these insights on her personal blog, about the curative nature of art and the symbiotic relationship it has with healing. Art can help “seek out the light and push away the darkness”, Leonie writes, saying that she wants to “create something that can bring light and change.”
As I turn my gaze between the road ahead and the intrepid mountain bikers slicing through the wine farms on the dirt tracks, I wonder about the darkness that exists within this abstract South African painter and where did it all come from?
“I always say that I grew up as an orphan in a family of orphans,” Leonie starts, as we take our seats in her studio, an oblong-shaped hall that forms part of the 1st Durbanville Scout Hall.
Her two beautiful Swiss Shepherds find comfort by her feet and I sip the coffee she’s made me from a metal, paint-stained cup.
“My dad, he didn’t really have parents really, he discovered his mother dead on the ground when he was 10 and was sent off to his grandmother, so he grew up without a father. And my mother grew up in a really poor family in Parow. Big families those days were very, very poor. She was seven years old standing on a chair cooking rice on a hot stove, for example.
It begins as a story of asperity from poverty, for children from two separate families that would eventually become Leonie’s parents. Childlike innocence swept away by a harsh Dickens-esque narrative. “When they got married and I came along four years later, my dad was already an alcoholic. And my mum grew up with a lot of fear as she came from an abusive background, so she was overtly controlling and aggressive towards me as well. So I grew up with no protection, actually no parenting. I was looked after, fed, probably loved but they didn’t know how to express it.” I follow her lead in sipping coffee, feeling the neglect in my heart as she speaks.
“Alcoholism has a massive impact on children in any case and abuse teaches you not to trust authority,” Leonie continues telling me. “You cannot trust anybody and it affects your whole life. I had my first boyfriend when I was fifteen and I was date raped. This guy was obsessed with me and I couldn’t get rid of him. I was basically, for two years, raped three times a week and I had no control over it. I didn’t trust my parents so I couldn’t go to them.”
In the corner of my eye, there’s a painting that I later learned is entitled “Out of the Storm, Into the Light.” Strokes of rust brown, crimson red and mould green combine in terrifying swirls. So much of Leonie’s pain immortalized by the hardening of clay and acrylic paints on canvas.
“Throughout my early life, I ended up with abusive men. Either psychologically abusive, or physically abusive. I was with a guy from when I was about 15 to 18 and he used to beat me, he tried to throttle me a few times, even tried to kill me. I eventually fell pregnant. Not by choice.
My mum didn’t take it very well. My mum rejected me. The baby was born at 7 months, dead. I believe the child died because, I, at that point (being a child myself), hated the child. I cursed that child.”
“I managed to make matric, I managed to get away from this guy, finally. But even through Varsity (University), it was the same pattern,” Leonie puts her cup down.
“Psychologically, your brain is amazing. You just shut down. I just decided that this didn’t happen to me. But your soul, your spirit. It’s all there. It’s like a big storm inside of you.
So I did really well at Art in Varsity, but nobody knew what to do with me, because I was unteachable. I didn’t trust anybody. I mean how? Especially me. How do you trust a man?”
I nod in agreement, hoping that it comes across in an empathetic way, rather than sympathetic – not in my entire lifetime could I ever feel what she felt.
Leonie made it through the 5 years and received a degree and a diploma in art and teaching. She attributes her success at Varisty to the “risk” she took in studying teaching with art as a second subject to get a bursary, as in her second year she changed her course to only focus on art, something that is strictly forbidden now.
She was good at art, she tells me, even has a painting from when she was 15 years old that was so good, her school called up her mother to tell them to stop doing her homework for her. But she never saw herself as an artist or someone who could have a career in art because her mother’s voice hit the notes of self-doubt.
After Varisty, Leonie tells me how nothing brought her any peace, and despite making New Year’s resolutions to change, to rid the pain from her upbringing, she ended up “building a bigger and bigger wall” and hiding behind those towering, defensive walls was a very lonely girl. But the sheer amicable resilience of her character meant she didn’t give up trying to find hope.
“When I found religion, when I decided to give my life to God, it was the beginning of a change.
When I did that, I stopped painting for 10 years. When I look back, I did that because I needed to change. Inside.” She points to her heart.
“I left everything, left Pretoria, left my family and everyone and I came to Cape Town. I didn’t have a job and I was alone with my dog. I took the first job I could find, in graphics and started again.” This is the point in the interview where I learn the meaning of the name Leonie: Little girl with a brave heart. She fought off the currents and swam upstream and found herself able to rebuild.
Through the vicissitudes of the ten years, Leonie felt the continual pull back to art. She worked in the corporate world doing graphic design, but despite it teaching her business skills, she said it “was limiting” and she missed the unpredictability of painting an abstract piece.
“After the second year of work, it started to become repetitive. It’s Valentine’s Day, it’s this day and this day, you just have to come up with a new design and you already know how to do it but with paintings, you never know what you are going to get! But working was a good learning experience as it taught me valuable business skills.”
But possibly the most momentous lesson learnt, as she was trying to find herself “through a thick forest” of pain was that of trust, which partly came in the form of a female boss. “She didn’t believe in what people said about me but looked at me as a person and as an individual. She taught me that there are people in authority that I can trust.”
The building blocks were there with religion and a positive authority figure in the form of her female boss and so Leonie was learning to trust all over again. But she still lacked that person to walk beside her.
In 2000, I started painting again. In 2001, I met my husband. He was the one who also helped heal me, he’s a wonderful man. When you get married, your fears and frustrations you take out on the closest person. You hurt the person you love the most because somebody has to pay.
In my case, he had to pay because of what happened to me. I was so angry because of this history of abuse.”
She talks with a genuine, vibrant love gleaming in her eyes as she tells me of the man, her husband, who held her close through the tears and the fights and steadied her soul to heal. “Reflecting pain is very emotional.” She lets out a laugh and I follow suit, her story echoing inside of me like the voice of little girl lost down a well.
I invite you to share your stories of how art, whether mine or another’s, has brought comfort and hope into your life.
Art should not be confined to galleries or the elite. It’s a source of inspiration for all, a vessel for truth and beauty. It should not be for selfish gain but for the beauty, glory and good of God and others.
In closing, remember that courage and perseverance are the guiding stars of our lives. It’s not about being fearless but about finding the will to move forward, even when fear surrounds us. Life’s challenges may test us, but they also reveal the resilience within our souls.
This art was prophetic in nature. Shortly after finishing this piece, i was told that I had a cancerous growth in my throat.
The dogs within the artwork symbolize the confusion that often plagues our minds, where thoughts revolve endlessly around the same problem without finding a solution. In contrast, the horse symbolizes strength, power, and the ability to overcome adversity. As an avid horse rider myself, I deeply resonate with the symbolism of the horse. The woman in the artwork is surrounded by birds and flowers, representing new life and growth amidst confusion. Despite the chaos surrounding her, the central figure stands still and quiet, waiting to hear the voice of love.
Created using the unique Cold Wax Painting technique, this piece invites you to run your fingers over its textured surface, allowing you to feel the depths of emotion embedded in each layer. The cold wax medium enables an interplay of light and shadow, unveiling hidden narratives and emotions that gradually unfold as you engage with the artwork.
In this video, we continue our conversation with Leonie.e.Brown, an artist whose work explores the intersection of spiritual and physical realities. In part 2 of our conversation, Leonie shares her secret to finding inspiration and success in her art. In part 1 of this conversation. Now in part 2, she shares with us her secret to finding inspiration and success in
FROM LEONIE: Hey there, fellow survivor and art enthusiast! I’ve been through battles, fought to live, and emerged stronger than ever. My art is a reflection of my journey, a testament to hope, resilience, and strength. In my paintings, you’ll find figures that embody the pain and suffering of abuse, but also the profound beauty and unyielding power of the human spirit.
Whether you're an art enthusiast or someone seeking inspiration, I invite you to explore my shop and gallery, immerse yourself in the stories, and discover the beauty that can arise from life's challenges. Together, we can celebrate the art of thriving.CLICK HERE TO FIND YOUR OWN STORY OR FILL IN THE FORM BELOW